When I saw the Martin Luther King quote engraved on the north face of his monument at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, my immediate thought was: “A little full of ourselves there, are we, Marty?”
It reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
Personally, I’ve always hated drum majors—prancing, flashy show-offs with big hats. I never thought of Martin Luther King as a drum major, or as someone prone to self-glorifying descriptions. I was relieved, therefore, to learn that what he really said was this, in a sermon two months before his death, speculating on what his eulogy might sound like:
“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
Ahh! Now that’s the Rev. Martin Luther King I remember! Unfortunately, it’s not the one future generations of America will know, because a false quote, mischaracterizing his meaning and his character, is immortalized in stone on the National Mall.
African-American poet Maya Angelou objects. “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” she said this week. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply. He had no arrogance at all.
“He had a humility that comes from deep inside. The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
Angelou says the paraphrase “minimizes the man.” “It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was. . . . It makes him seem an egotist.” Her main point: “He would never have said that of himself. He said you might say it.”
When the explanation given by the memorial’s planners was told to her—that the full quotation wouldn’t fit, her response was terse and direct:
Exactly. Shame on Dr. King for not properly calibrating his words for convenient display, but too bad: the solution is not to twist, truncate, and eviscerate his meaning, his character and his language. The genuinely arrogant twits are the memorial’s planners, who have so little respect for the figure they are honoring that they chose centuries of misrepresentation over integrity.
The quote should be changed to reflect King’s intent, or removed. Ethically, there are no other options. Misquoting an important historical figure is always wrong, but placing a misquoted passage on that individual’s memorial is an insult, both to the honored man and history.
The equivalent would be to have the simplistic statement of Presbyterian minister William J. H. Boetcker, persistently and wrongly attributed to Abraham Lincoln, side by side with the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial. ( “You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred. You cannot build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence. You cannot help small men by tearing down big men. You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income. You cannot establish security on borrowed money. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they will not do for themselves.”) That wasn’t Lincoln. He didn’t say it. He wouldn’t say it. It would be wrong to tell posterity that he did.
Angelou herself, unfortunately, has to be assigned much of the responsibility for this fiasco; in fact, she owes Dr. King a personal apology. She was a member of the Memorial Commission’s Council of Historians, picked to select inscriptions for the memorial, but she did not attend inscription meetings. The memorial’s executive architect, Ed Jackson Jr., says that Angelou had advance notice of the proposed words to be engraved at the site, and plenty of time to register her objections.
Angelou is absolutely right that the misquote is an abomination, but the Commission included her in the process specifically to prevent something like this from happening. Maya Angelou didn’t do her job, and that is why Martin Luther King seems like “an arrogant twit” at his own memorial.
They should change the quote, and send her the bill.